Resilience: How to Thrive in Tough Times

Apr 11th, 2017

“Resilience is a treasure that can grow out of our response to adversity.”

Boris Cyrulnik


Last month, I was privileged to attend a talk by the inspiring Jim Collins in London.  The world renowned author of Good to Great left me buzzing with ideas and inspiration about great leadership. Among the many topics discussed, the question of leaders who thrive in adversity felt particularly relevant. I had recently been working with a number of clients in senior leadership roles who were feeling overstretched – and in some cases overwhelmed – as tough decisions and sweeping changes were being made in their organisations.


With the World Health Organisation describing stress as ‘the greatest health epidemic of the 21st century’, resilience has become essential to our work/life strategy. The word resilience comes from the Latin resilire meaning “to bounce back” or “rebound”. My definition of Resilience is ‘the ability to withstand or recover from difficult situations, including our capacity to make the best of these things and rise to the occasion.’


One of my clients  (David*) , a high-performing equity partner in the property sector, had seen his region’s sales fall for the first time ever at a time when pressure for results was intense.  Another, (James*) a high-flyer in the banking sector, had been promoted with a broader remit, and was finding it hard to juggle the breadth of expectations upon him. What makes the difference to enable you to navigate the challenges successfully, thrive in adversity and emerge stronger than before?


Here are my 7 top tips:


  1. Manage your inner response

You cannot control what happens in life, but you are always in control of your response.   I often refer to the formula by Jack Canfield E+R=O : Event + Response = Outcome.   When people don’t like the outcomes they are experiencing, there is a tendency to blame the event (E) for their lack of results (O). By changing their response (R) to an unexpected event (eg market downturn) you can influence a different outcome.


Key to building resilience is our mind-set and focusing on the positives of a situation.  When we met, David was focused on how he would present the ‘bad news’ to the board. When I began by asking  what was going well? , he revealed that the firm was still market leader in many sectors, plus his team had recently secured a record deal. By focusing on the positives, it enabled him to take a different perspective which heightened his ability to identify solutions and make a stronger presentation.


  1. Think back to a past situation

Think back to a past situation that you found difficult but which you got through in a way you now feel happy about.   What helped you to tackle it? Think about the strategies you used, the strengths you drew upon, the resources and people you turned to and the insights you found useful. Apply these to your current situation, even if the circumstances are different. David recognised that he had faced a similar situation during the market crash of 2009, but that at the time he had had an excellent team around him. This made him realise he had to make some changes in his team and that he had waited too long to address this.


  1. Address the Brutal Facts and have a plan to resolve them

Leaders who succeed in adversity do not create false hope or brush over the severity of a situation. Confront the harsh truth and have a plan to move forward.  Anne Mulcahy became the CEO of Xerox in 2001, when the company was in huge debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.  She tackled the problems head on, dramatically cut costs in the right places and spent considerable time listening to people in the company and being honest with them.  Today Xerox has an income in excess of US18 billion.


  1. Be disciplined about the core activities of success that must never be compromised

Identify the activities that are vital to your long-term success and have the discipline to consistently deliver them.  Jim Collins calls this your 20 mile March and likens it to the military who if they have to run 20 miles a day to achieve their objective do not wake up one morning and say the weather is bad today we will run double tomorrow.  For some it is attaining a minimum profit margin of 20%, or never having a loss year.  Pixel Films know they need to make 3 films per year, 2 originals and one remake. What is your 20-Mile March?  James identified the essentials that could not be compromised and then brought systematisation to these activities amongst the team. We also worked through  the ‘What if’s’ – to build in buffers and have a fall back plan.


  1. Know what to stop doing

With a wider remit at work and four young children at home, James was feeling overwhelmed. He was working on the basis that he could do the original job plus the expanded role without any change. People often try to manage an expanding role thinking they have a never-ending capacity. James and I identified what he needed to stop doing. We also built a simple road map that clarified the critical aspects of his role and what those in his team should be doing.


  1. Do things that energise or relax you to create balance

When your outputs exceed your inputs, your energy will deplete. Identify how to balance the extra effort your role is requiring. David looked at his quality of life and identified how he could be home early one day a week and planned his summer vacation with his family.   James identified trusted peer relationships he could go to in confidence, and arranged to have lunch once a month.  He also prioritised his swimming which not only kept him fit but was the time when his best ideas came.   Balance in this way enables you to make clearer decisions to respond to the challenges in a positive way.


  1. Acknowledge how much you have grown

Boris Cyrulnik, the French psychologist, describes the pearl in the oyster as the emblem of resilience. When a small piece of grit irritates the oyster, it responds by secreting a substance that covers the grit and hardens to form a pearl.  In a similar way resilience is a treasure that can grow out of our response to adversity.  When we think like this, we give a different meaning to difficult events which enables us to come out the other side stronger, better and greater than before.


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Oona Collins


*Names have been changed.